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Aug 11, 2009

Donovan the undisputed leader of the U.S. team

He may well be the greatest player the United States has ever produced, but Landon Donovan never seemed able to shake the swirl of questions and controversy that surrounded him. In fact, Donovan may be more admired outside the country than he ever has been by American fans, some of whom had labeled him with the derisive nickname of "Landycakes" and questioned his heart.

That is, until this summer.

Now no one questions Landon Donovan, who grew not only in stature but into a leader during July's Confederations Cup. Ironically, in the midst of the tournament came the news that Donovan was at the center of a brewing book controversy. After an excerpt of a book focused on Los Angeles teammate David Beckham hit the newsstands, most media attention focused on Donovan's pointed criticism of the English midfielder.

However, after sterling performances against the likes of Spain and Brazil, it's "Landycakes" no more. Asked if he was trying to prove a point at the Confederations Cup, Donovan indicated that wasn't the case.

"I wasn't 'showing' anybody anything at the Confederations Cup," Donovan said. "My goal was to play the way that I know how to play, regardless of outside circumstances. I have spent too much time in my career worrying about things that are beyond my control, and I am now focusing solely on the things I can control."

Donovan has often worn the captain's armband for both club and country, but he is now unquestioningly the leader of both. As it stands, it's not the Donovan who "failed" at Leverkusen and limped home to MLS or the player who had a quiet 2006 World Cup that fans remember.

As the United States takes the field against Mexico on Wednesday, looking for its first-ever victory in Azteca, it will be Donovan who leads them. It's a part of his game that others have seen grow and develop.

"The thing that stands out the most to me is his willingness to step up in difficult situations. His willingness to take responsibility of being the hero or the goat. That takes character," said former national team captain and defender Eddie Pope, who played with Donovan on the national team from 2000 to 2006. "He stepped up to take a very important penalty in the qualifier this summer against Honduras and then again in the Confederations Cup against Italy. So on the field Landon is leading by example."

Donovan is viewed as a quiet, stoic type, and that calm demeanor sometimes works against him when fans expect raw emotion. Donovan has always suffered a perception issue, stemming largely from two failed stints with Leverkusen which led him back to MLS on both occasions.

"Many think that Landon is always quiet. However, when the time is right, he always speaks up and says the right thing to lift the team and get it moving in the right direction," Pope said. "He doesn't just mouth off all the time with the rah-rah rhetoric. He is one of those leaders who understands that it's not how much you say but what you say."

The question about Donovan has never really been one of performance. Since his first cap in 2000 against Mexico and his move to MLS one year later, there has not been a better or more consistent player in this country than Donovan. Fire defender and MLS All-Star Bakary Soumare calls him "hands down, the best attacking player in the league."

The question has always been whether he was "Landycakes." At times in the past, he's seemed passive when fans wanted to see emotion. Couple that with the struggles with Leverkusen and it was a volatile cocktail for fans. When asked about his "Landycakes" nickname, he was diplomatic.

"I can't control what people think of me or say about me," Donovan said. "We all have different ideas of what we think people should do with their life, but I have to live my life and I'm going to live it the way I choose -- not what anybody else chooses for me."

He readily admits that this summer's Confederations Cup will most likely be viewed as a turning point in his career. It was, after all, Donovan who was the spark of a surprising U.S. run to the tournament's championship game. But more than anything, his larger role in leading the team was equally impressive.

"My role as a leader on the national team has developed a lot over the last year and I feel like I'm finally where I want to be," Donovan said. "I've learned that the best way for me to lead is by example, and I'm doing that consistently now."

When he burst onto the scene in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championships, he was instantly anointed as not just a star, but also as the next face of U.S. Soccer. Like so many American players before him, Donovan was heralded as the United States' first truly world-class player. Unreasonable expectations were dashed when he twice moved back to MLS from stints with Leverkusen.

Now the league sees a different Donovan. After scoring a spectacular volley against New England on Saturday night, perhaps the goal of the year, Donovan leapt into Beckham's arms to celebrate. The Galaxy have not lost since his return to the team from the Confederations Cup. He may be the front-runner for his first-ever MVP award.

"I've always prided myself in my ability to continue playing at a high level. I learned a lot about this from Cobi Jones. There are so many young players that are the flavor of the week that people love to anoint the next great thing," Donovan said. "The easy part is getting to the top. It is much more difficult to stay there. Cobi was able to play at that level for nearly 20 years and I always respected that about him."

Players like Kansas City's Jimmy Conrad -- who has played against Donovan in MLS and served as a teammate with him on the national team -- can't quite understand the criticism. Conrad considers Donovan the best player the U.S. has ever produced and says unequivocally that he doesn't "know of a single teammate of Landon's, both in the past and present, who could have anything but positive things to say about his commitment to the game and to his team. The guy wants to win at everything he does."

And he doesn't mind a good joke, either.

About a month before the 2006 World Cup, Conrad was nervously awaiting the announcement of the roster for the tournament. As somewhat of a bubble player, Conrad hoped to make the team, but he wasn't so sure, and he spent an uncertain afternoon instant-messaging Donovan.

Donovan left the instant-message session with Conrad and returned 45 minutes later. According to the Wizards defender, Donovan messaged him saying "Hey, I've got great news." Conrad, thinking Donovan might have heard something, responded to the message, wanting details.

"My heart is pumping wildly while he's typing back because I think he's going to confirm my dream coming true," Conrad said. "He says, 'I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.'"

Despite their friendship, Conrad claims he would have exacted his revenge on the playing field. The Wizards defender would, however, be named to head coach Bruce Arena's World Cup roster, but the damage was already done. Conrad summed up his thoughts on Donovan.

"What a jerk," he said, with a laugh.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet and regularly appears in the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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